There’s a line in the movie “The Post,” when editor Ben Bradlee says to publisher Katharine Graham, “If we don’t hold them accountable, who will?”
Bradlee, played by Tom Hanks, was offering new Washington Post publisher Graham, played by Meryl Streep, his consequences-be-damned view about publishing the Pentagon Papers despite an attorney general’s order forbidding the New York Times from continuing to publish the documents. As publisher of a familyowned newspaper, she was forced to think of the business and financial ramifications of doing that; whether such a bold journalistic move could touch off a legal battle and timidity from financial supporters that could devastate the newspaper.
History and the movie show she supported publication. Go see “The Post” for a fuller version of the story. It’s an educational look at the importance of a free press in society “ripped right from today’s headlines,” as Hanks said in a “CBS This Morning” interview last month.
Hanks and Streep, in that same interview, noted themes from the movie that resonate today. One was the issue of equity and equality for women. Graham was operating in a world of men when she “stepped into a moment of history where she made history.” Another was “a government trying to keep the truth secret,” as Hanks said. And there was the issue of, as Streep put it, “a government siege on the free and independent press.” President Nixon was leading the charge then. Telephone conversation audio captured during his presidency and used in “The Post” demonstrated his animosity. He didn’t have Twitter to vent directly to the people.
Streep in that interview with CBS noted the peril to society when a president acts so aggressively against the press:
“When the state goes after the press, it’s a very dangerous situation in a democracy because it gives license all around the world for this to happen.”
Remember what Bradlee said? “If we don’t hold them accountable, who will?” Attacking those trying to hold government accountable indeed is a dangerous situation.
The issue goes deeper than the press, though. It involves individuals who seek to make sure members of the government act for the good of the people and not for themselves. The press — the media, when it’s expanded beyond print to the real world of various platforms — can’t do its job of holding people accountable without individuals willing to do that first. These are people who inform themselves and speak up, often seeking a broader audience by contacting the press about something they believe is wrong. These are people such as Daniel Ellsberg, who understood the citizens of a nation have a right to know that their government for nearly 30 years sent young people to a war that leaders knew was not winnable.
Here’s what Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black wrote in his concurring opinion upholding the Post’s right to publish the Pentagon Papers:
“The press was to be protected so that it could bare the secrets of government and inform the people ... and paramount among the responsibilities of a free press is the duty to prevent any part of the government from deceiving the people and sending them off to distant lands to die of foreign fevers and foreign shot and shell.”
That opinion also noted “the press was to serve the governed, not the governors.”
That remains true today.